For Rocco Siciliano, and All of Our Roccos, Past and Present 

If you ask my friends they’ll tell you I’m rarely at a loss for words. I spend a lot of time in libraries (digging through family history records) but that hardly means I’m the quiet, library type! So imagine my surprise when I came across a document that rendered me speechless.

Normally, sharing an interesting discovery in a client’s family tree is my favorite part of my job as a genealogist and I can hardly wait to share the news. But this time was different. This time I didn’t have the words to express what I felt. I discovered the record a few months ago. I couldn’t pinpoint then why this record—this person—almost brought me to tears. But I hope I’m doing him justice now.

A determined family

I’m sure you’re curious about this record but it needs to be put in context to be fully appreciated, so let me give you a bit of background. A client wanted me to do additional research on his family that came from the province of Bari, near the heel of the Italian “boot.”

We already had a sense from a previous search that Joe’s ancestors, like so many of ours, were determined to pull themselves out of the crippling poverty that engulfed most Southern Italians. Our first indication came when we found out that one of his ancestors became a police officer. It’s rare to see a profession like that among a sea of farm laborers, or just “peasants” as they were viewed back then. After that, Joe wanted me to go back another generation to see what else we might uncover. That‟s when I found something equally rare, if not rarer—a signature.

Image from the Ufficio dello Stato Civile, province of Bari. Courtesy of the Family History Library, Salt Lake City, UT

Not just a signature, but frankly, the best darned signature I’ve ever seen. “Why is it so special?” you might ask. For starters, the signature was found on a 150-year-old marriage record and it belonged to the father of the bride: Rocco Siciliano.

The document states that Rocco was illiterate, as most people were in that day, and that his occupation was a “pastore,” or shepherd. In other words, he was a peasant. I’ve seen thousands of Italian documents and I don’t see many peasants of that era signing documents—period—so that alone makes it special.

But beyond that, it’s obvious by the way that Rocco signed his name that he wasn’t accustomed to doing so. The big, awkward letters in block print are the dead give-away. And then there is that backwards “a” in “Siciliano” that really makes this priceless.

“Poor, but proud”

Clearly, he struggled to write that name. And I think it’s safe to say that he struggled with much more than that in life. In the 1860s, hunger and disease were commonplace; the life of a peasant was nothing but struggle.

But Rocco’s signature shows he wasn’t resigned to that position in life. Even at 54 years old he was determined to push forward, to make an effort to be more, do more, than was expected of a peasant. This was his daughter’s wedding, and by God, he would sign the document, no matter what it took. When I showed Joe his ancestor’s record, he simply replied, “I always knew my people were a poor, but proud, people. And this confirms it.”

Joe surprised his family with our findings when they gathered for the Easter holiday. They were delighted to have that little piece of their family history. The fact that Joe gets so much joy out of learning of, and passing on, family stories tells me that Rocco‟s proud spirit is alive and well, and probably will be for some time.

Maybe that’s what affected me the most about this record. Most of us Italian-Americans have had Roccos in the family that helped make us who we are today—people who may not have had a lot materially but who were rich in character. They held their heads high and pushed on, no matter how tough things got. Many of us know exactly what Joe meant when he said his people were “poor but proud.”

“Noblemen” in the family tree

I say “many of us” because some, particularly those in the younger generation, think that they have to find someone rich or famous in their tree to have a reason to be proud. I’ve had a few people call me inquiring about the possibility of finding a nobleman in their tree, as if they were hoping to find a hidden treasure. I tell them flat-out that it‟s not likely that we’ll find a noble line but that doesn’t mean they won’t have something to treasure. And it certainly doesn’t mean that we won’t find noble men (and women.)

It takes more than a title to make a man noble. 

Other “Roccos

My grandfather, Paul Giammatteo, was the son of Italian immigrants. He had six kids of his own and they struggled to make ends meet. But he lived each day like there was no tomorrow, choosing to make the best out of what he did have in life, rather than focus on what he didn’t. His favorite things were cooking and entertaining—actually, anything that put a smile on someone’s face. With pop-pop, even a mundane chore like going to the grocery store seemed like an outing. He would juggle oranges in the produce aisle and tell jokes to the butcher as he sliced the meat.

When he passed away, even in the small town of Newark, Delaware, my Pop-Pop had 800 people at his wake. Now if that’s not a noble man, then I don’t know what is. 

We don’t always have time in our busy lives to stop and consider the efforts of those who came before us, but maybe we should. Their stories give us reason to be proud and inspire us to follow in their footsteps by being the very best that we can be. Today, some 200 years after his birth, I want to give a nod to Rocco for leaving this signature behind that, in many ways, tells us more than any history book could, and to all of our Roccos, past and present.

Hellen Keller once said: “The world is moved along, not only by the mighty shoves of its heroes, but also by the aggregate of tiny pushes of each honest worker.”

Rocco pushed. And we won’t forget it.